Siya Kolisi was an inspiration on and off the field in 2017, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Siya Kolisi is determined to make a difference. This becomes increasingly clear as we chat about his recent performances, his rise as a leader, the birth of his second child, the launch of his new underwear business, his drive to unite sports teams in the Western Cape, and last but certainly not least, his plan to keep kids off the streets in his home town of Zwide.
The man has, by all accounts, led a remarkable life. He’s already blazed a path for those in similarly difficult situations to follow. The year 2017 was a particularly good one for Kolisi and his family – ‘My best ever!’ he exclaims – and it would be fair to say he has nothing more to prove.
Yet the 26-year-old feels his job is far from done. On a longer timeline, 2017 may well be marked as the end of the beginning rather than a triumph in isolation. Kolisi will be remembered as more than a rugby player.
Kolisi has just returned from a Springbok training session when SA Rugby magazine catches up with him at the team hotel.
The Boks are in Cardiff preparing in earnest for the final Test of the season against Wales.
Five days earlier, Kolisi and his wife Rachel welcomed little Keziah Qaqamba into the world. Kolisi was granted leave to fly back to Cape Town to be with his family for the birth. The couple’s son Nicholas (3) and Kolisi’s half-siblings Liyema (15) and Liphelo (10) – both of whom he legally adopted in 2016 – also shared in the experience.
‘I’ve never been this happy,’ he says. ‘The second time has been different. Having a little girl … it just feels different. The look on Nick’s face when he met his baby sister is something I will never forget. My brother and sister were also pretty chuffed.
‘It’s the perfect end to what has been a great year for me,’ Kolisi continues. ‘Getting the Stormers captaincy was a dream come true. I felt it brought out the best in me. The opportunity came at a time when I had to be a leader at home, too.
‘Being a father changes your perspective on a lot of things. I’ve been a father for a while, but things have changed a bit since I adopted my brother and sister.
‘I try to give my best on the field in every game. I also have to lead at home. I have to show my brother how to treat a woman by how I treat my wife. I treat my sister like I want someone else to treat to her. Nick is three and picking up on all sorts of things.’
Kolisi laughs and then pauses to reflect, as if he can’t believe how one man could be so lucky. The responsibility of leading a team and of being a parent to four kids isn’t weighing him down. He gives one the impression that the opposite is true.
‘I want to be Nick’s hero,’ he says. ‘He’s never supported me as much as he has in 2017. He’s got into rugby. He wears his Springbok jersey all the time. When he sees me, he sees a Springbok. He just wants to play. He says he wants to run fast like me.’ Again he pauses and then laughs. ‘That comment made my year.’
Kolisi is a warm and welcoming character. He is well aware of the fact there are people from all walks of life in South Africa who, like his spirited son, are looking to him to set an example. Even in non-rugby circles he has found some support.
‘I prefer to sit with the people in the stands when I go to soccer matches,’ he says. ‘I went to watch Cape Town City a while ago. I was amazed to see how many people appreciated me being there. It was such a small thing on my part, as I love going to the soccer. People came across to say hello. We got to sing songs together. That kind of thing inspires me.
‘I’m a Kaizer Chiefs fan, but I’m living in Cape Town and I want to support the local side,’ he adds. ‘We all want to help make the Cape Town sport scene better. Cape Town City, the Stormers and the Cape Cobras are going to start working together. We need to get all the fans in Cape Town to support these teams. I’ve spoken to people at Cape Town City about it and I’ve spoken to JP Duminy at the Cobras. They are all keen. I’m looking forward to see what comes of it.’
Engaging with children at training clinics and visits to schools have been rewarding. Kolisi feels it’s important to connect with all these youngsters and show them that they too can go on to great things. Kolisi himself grew up in Zwide, a township outside Port Elizabeth.
‘That’s my inspiration right there,’ he says. ‘I think back on those moments and how those kids are lifted when they see the Springboks. That’s when you know what you want to do with your life. You have an opportunity to meet these kids and inspire them and set them on the right path.
‘It’s good for them to meet us and to learn from our attitude and values, and for them to see that we are normal people, like them. We’re not the superheroes some people make us out to be.
‘I come from the township,’ he continues. ‘People from that area might see me succeed and feel that they can enjoy similar success. Having said that, it’s not only about black people or people from the township. In every race, there are people who have things and some who don’t. Not every white person had opportunities growing up. I want to inspire all those people.’
Kolisi was handed the Springbok vice-captaincy in the Rugby Championship. There is a strong chance he will get an opportunity to lead the Boks at some stage over the next decade. In doing so, he could become the first black African to captain South Africa in a Test.
He will always be the kid from the township, though. Kolisi isn’t about to forget his roots as he rises to the top of the rugby pile, and beyond.
‘When I was young, my grandmother told me she was the poor one, not me. She said I hadn’t lived my life yet. I hadn’t gone to school and tried and failed. It’s that older generation that really struggled, you know. They worked hard to get people like me to where I want to be.
‘I will never take things for granted. That is how I feel about rugby and about leadership. You show others what you want by the example you set. You don’t need talent to work hard.’
Kolisi hopes to give back to Zwide and the Eastern Cape in the coming years.
He still believes something can be done to boost sport in the area and keep the children off the streets.
‘I’m trying to organise a rugby tournament at the African Bombers Club in Zwide next June,’ he says. ‘The kids in the township don’t usually have anything to do at that time of the year. That’s when they catch on the rubbish. I want to get a few schools to play a tournament over a week or so and get a few of the clubs to field a team or two.
‘Another one of my biggest wishes is for the Dan Qeqe Stadium to get a makeover. There are so many fields in the area. It’s got a nice grandstand. It’s just a pity it’s broken down now, though. People still play there. There’s a rugby field, soccer teams train there, there is a cricket net and a tennis court. If you can fix all that up, you can get a lot of the kids off the streets and involved in sport. I’m sure a number of coaches would volunteer their services, too.
‘That’s my goal. I would love to speak to someone in the Eastern Cape about that one day, perhaps the mayor. It would be great to get that right. I promise you, it would change so many lives. That’s where I started playing rugby and look where I am today.’
It sounds like Kolisi has a clear idea of what he wants to achieve.
‘It’s about more than sport,’ he says. ‘You’ve got to make the most of these opportunities. It’s not only about inspiring the next generation of rugby players. It’s about getting kids to realise what sport can do for you.
‘When I go speak to the schools, I remind everyone that only a few people make it in rugby. I tell them we still need the people who don’t make it, in a professional sense. They will still have a role to play. I always try to encourage everyone in the township.
‘I’m seen as a sportsman but I don’t want to be pigeonholed. We’re talking about things that are way, way bigger than playing rugby. I don’t want people to go through their whole lives struggling. I want them to know that things can be better.’
Kolisi has also realised that now is the time to plan for life after rugby. Midway through 2017, he teamed up with former Stormers and EP Kings centre Tim Whitehead to start an underwear business.
‘Tim and I went to school together at Grey High in PE and we still get on well. One day he called me with this idea. I told him I was in.
‘Are all players thinking about life after rugby? I don’t think so. Most of us live in a bubble. We think that this,’ – he sweeps his hand wide to indicate the lavish surroundings of the hotel lobby – ‘is what life is all about. Then it comes to the point where players retire. They have no savings. They’ve got nothing else to do.
‘I’m trying to motivate other players to start something while they are still in rugby. This is the time when everyone wants to work with you. You’re still in the spotlight. After rugby you’re going to struggle to attract attention.
‘When we start making proper profits from the business, I want to pay for a kid to go to school,’ he vows. ‘Because that’s how I made it; someone else paid for me to go to school. That is how I can return the favour.’
The conversation moves back to the rugby and to the Boks. Again, he stresses that he has more to give in a Bok jersey. The series against England in June will provide Kolisi with a chance to measure himself against some of the best players in the world. Further down the line, he hopes to play a starring role for South Africa at the 2019 World Cup.
‘I was fortunate to be at the 2015 World Cup, but didn’t get a lot of game time. I would love to keep starting in the lead-up to the 2019 tournament. I’m expecting no favours, though. You have to earn that starting position every week.
‘The year 2016 was an ugly one for the Boks,’ he admits. ‘There was a lot of pressure going into 2017, and while we improved in some ways, we still didn’t get all the results we wanted. It was tough because we know how good this side can be. We know that some of the performances in 2017 were not up to our own standards.
‘Rugby means a lot to people in South Africa and they want results. We lost badly at times. We can’t lose by 50-plus points to New Zealand. We can’t lose by 30-odd points to Ireland. We can understand it when the people back home are hurting after losses like that.
‘People mustn’t lose hope, though,’ he adds. ‘I believe there will be more improvements in 2018. We haven’t reached our potential yet. The best is yet to come from this Springbok side.’
– This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine. The February 2018 is on sale Monday, 22 January.